United States and United Kingdom officials should call on the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to release unconditionally scores of peaceful critics, Human Rights Watch and other human rights groups said. The detainees are being held solely for expressing views critical of the UAE government or being associated with a peaceful opposition group. Both the US and the UK have extensive trade, investment, and military ties with the UAE.
Since July 16, 2012, UAE authorities have detained 36 Emirati civil society activists and human rights defenders. Two prominent human rights lawyers are among those detained without charge, and a new spate of arrests on July 30 and 31 has brought the number of peaceful dissidents arbitrarily jailed in recent months to 50. The whereabouts of 38 of the detained men remain unknown.
“After all their fine words over the past year about standing up for democracy and human rights in the Arab world, the US and the UK have completely lost their voices when it comes to the UAE,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “It’s long past time for the American and British governments to speak out clearly, in public as well as in meetings with UAE officials, about this draconian response to the mildest calls for modest democratic reforms.”
Human Rights Watch, Frontline Defenders, Al Karama, the Gulf Centre for Human Rights and the Index on Censorship wrote to the UK foreign secretary, William Hague, and the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, on July 31 urging them to speak out regarding the unprecedented UAE crackdown on peaceful critics. Clinton said in a February 2011 speech that the US would “support citizens working to make their governments more open, transparent, and accountable.” In January 2012 Hague wrote that freedom was “still flowering” in the Arab world and that protection against arbitrary punishment and freedom of expression were taking hold in the region.
The prominent human rights lawyers Mohamed al-Roken and Mohamed al-Mansoori are among those arrested recently. On July 17, Salim Hamdoon al-Shehhi, another lawyer, went to the State Security Prosecution office to represent al-Roken and al-Mansoori and was himself detained. The authorities’ harassment of Emirati lawyers leaves only one remaining free who is able and willing to offer legal assistance to those in detention.
On July 24, a court sentenced a former judge and University of Sharjah law professor, Ahmed Yusif al-Zaabi, to 12 months in prison for fraud and assuming another person’s identity. Al-Zaabi’s conviction was based on the fact that his passport still registered his profession as “judge,” although authorities had forced him into retirement after he expressed public support for political reform in the UAE in 2003.
On June 16, the UAE deported Ahmed Abd al-Khaleq, an advocate for the rights of stateless residents known as bidun, to Thailand. Although considered stateless by the UAE, Abd al-Khaleq was born and raised in the UAE and had never lived anywhere else. Authorities had held him without charge since May 22 and informed him that they would hold him indefinitely if he did not agree to leave the UAE.
Many of those detained in the unprecedented wave of arrests have links to al-Islah, a nonviolent political association advocating greater adherence to Islamic precepts. UAE authorities cracked down on al-Islah in December 2011, summarily stripping six al-Islah members of their UAE citizenship. Authorities began arresting al-Islah members on March 26, arresting Ahmed al-Zaabi and Ahmed Ghaith al-Suwaidi together at a Dubai gas station.
On July 27, UAE media quoted the Dubai police chief, Lt.-Gen. Dhahi Khalfan Tamim, as saying that the governments of Gulf countries “must be ready to counter threats from dissident groups” and referred to an “international plot” by the Muslim Brotherhood to overthrow governments in the region. This followed a July 15 statementby the UAE’s official news agency referring to the imminent arrest of a group of people having connections with “foreign organizations and outside agendas.”
Al-Roken, 50, a prominent Emirati human rights lawyer, had defended al-Islah members detained without charge since March, including those whom authorities had stripped of their citizenship. In 2011 he served as co-defense counsel for two of the activists known as the “UAE 5,” who were imprisoned for seven months in 2011 and prosecuted for allegedly posting statements on an internet forum critical of UAE government policy and leaders. For many years, authorities have prevented al-Roken from lecturing at the University of Al Ain on account of his outspoken views on the UAE.
Authorities have also harassed al-Mansoori, the deputy chairman of al-Islah and a former president of the Jurists’ Association, for many years. They dismissed him from his position as a legal adviser to the government of Ras Al Khaimah, one of the UAE emirates, in January 2010 after he criticized restrictions on freedom of speech in the country. Authorities have barred him from traveling since October 2007 and have refused to renew his passport since March 2008.
The crackdown in the UAE displays a serious disregard for the basic rights to free speech and free association, the human rights groups said.
“Over the past weeks and months the UAE has filled its jail cells with citizens who were simply calling for the most basic democratic reforms,” Stork said. “It’s long past time for Hillary Clinton and William Hague to condemn their arbitrary detention and call for their immediate release.”